Jay Sekulow has had a lively debut as a member of President Donald Trump’s personal legal team.
On June 11, the Washington attorney and conservative television figure went on ABC’s “This Week” talk show and refused to rule out the possibility that the president would fire the special counsel overseeing the criminal probe of the Trump campaign and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. A week later, Sekulow appeared on four Sunday shows, vociferously denying that the president is himself under investigation—a direct contradiction of his boss’s June 16 post on Twitter, in which Trump said, “I am being investigated.”
“Oh, boy, this is weird,” said Chris Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday,” as he tried to follow Sekulow’s verbal back-flips.
What may be even more weird is that Sekulow is on Trump’s legal team at all. The 61-year-old lawyer has an unusual professional and personal profile—one that doesn’t include experience with white-collar criminal cases, which would seem to be what Trump needs at the moment.
Sekulow formerly served as the general counsel for the organization Jews for Jesus. In the late 1980s, he became the leading U.S. Supreme Court advocate for the Christian right. While appearing regularly on Fox television as a legal analyst and hosting a syndicated radio show, he also runs interlocking Christian nonprofits that raise tens of millions of dollars a year and employ several members of his family.
Asked about Sekulow’s qualifications, Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Trump’s outside legal team, didn’t directly answer the question. “Jay is a member of the president’s legal team in the fullest sense of the word,” Corallo said. “He is also authorized to speak on television or otherwise.” Corallo said he didn’t know how Trump came to hire Sekulow. The spokesman didn't respond to questions about the Sekulow nonprofits.
Trump’s defense team continues to be led by Marc Kasowitz, a New York attorney who has a long history of representing the president in business and personal disputes, but not criminal (let alone high-stakes Washington) matters. Another member of the group is John Dowd, who possesses the Washington white-collar chops that Kasowitz and Sekulow lack. Dowd represented Senator John McCain in the early-’90s “Keating Five” scandal in which the Arizona Republican was eventually exonerated of charges that he met with bank regulators at the behest of a contributor.
In a 2005 essay entitled, “How a Jewish Lawyer from Brooklyn Came to Believe in Jesus,” Sekulow recounted seeking his father’s permission to attend a Baptist college in Atlanta. “Baptist-shamptist,” the elder Sekulow responded by way of giving his blessing. Raised as a Reform Jew, Sekulow describes himself as still loyal to his family’s faith when he arrived at Atlanta Baptist College (now Mercer University). But intensive Bible study changed his mind. “As I read, my suspicion that Jesus might really be the Messiah was confirmed,” he wrote.
After college, he attended Mercer Law School, graduating in 1980 and becoming a tax lawyer in Atlanta. In the mid-1980s, after initial success specializing in real estate tax shelters for wealthy investors, Sekulow became enmeshed in disputes related to one of his redevelopment projects, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He ended up millions of dollars in debt and filed for bankruptcy protection.
Showing extraordinary resilience, Sekulow switched the focus of his law practice and in 1986 became the general counsel of Jews for Jesus. The following year, he argued his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning a unanimous free-speech decision allowing members of his organization to distribute religious literature at Los Angeles International Airport. “I almost feel like God raised me back from the dead,” he told the Journal-Constitution in 1991. “It was a spiritual rebirth.”
Over roughly two decades, Sekulow argued a dozen high court cases, winning victories for Christian students seeking to form a school Bible club and anti-abortion activists wanting to protest aggressively at women’s health clinics. In lower-court engagements, he defended the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and its leader, Randall Terry.
Over time, Sekulow shifted his legal operation from Jews for Jesus to a pair of closely linked nonprofits he controls. The one that received the most publicity was the American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ, a group originally founded in 1990 by conservative Christian media mogul Pat Robertson. Robertson intended ACLJ to be a counterweight to the similarly named ACLU, or American Civil Liberties Union.
Sekulow serves as chief counsel and chief executive officer of ACLJ, which received contributions and grants of more than $19 million in 2015, the most recent year for which IRS nonprofit filings are available. Based in Virginia Beach, Virginia, ACLJ lists Sekulow’s brother, Gary, as chief financial officer and chief operating officer. Adam Sekulow, Gary’s son (and Jay’s nephew), is listed as director of major donors.
ACLJ’s IRS filing indicates that Jay Sekulow received no salary in 2015. But the organization transferred more than $5 million to a Washington law firm of which he’s a 50 percent owner. The firm is called Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group. ACLJ spokesman Gene Kapp referred all questions for Jay and Gary Sekulow to the Trump legal team spokesman, Corallo.
Jay Sekulow also serves as president of a second nonprofit, Tucker, Georgia-based Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, or CASE, which raised more than $52 million in 2015, according to its IRS filing. CASE says it is “doing business as” ACLJ. Four Sekulow relatives, including Jay’s wife, Pam, and his brother, Gary, are listed as serving on CASE’s board of directors. Gary’s compensation from CASE and related organizations is listed as more than $630,000. CASE’s filing says that in 2015 it transferred nearly $16 million to ACLJ and made payments totaling almost $1.2 million to businesses owned by Jay Sekulow.
On Monday, Sekulow was taking a victory lap on the Christian Broadcasting Network, reasserting that Trump isn’t under investigation and complaining about having to respond to media reports based on unnamed sources. “It’s like trying to swat at Jell-O,” he said. “This is what you deal with in Washington.”